Moral panics updated

Since the 1970s many authors have sought to update and refine Cohen’s original moral panics thesis. The contribution of Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda is especially noteworthy. In Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (2011) Goode and Ben-Yehuda make an important differentiation between moral panics, social problems, and moral crusades. Social problems, they argue, differ to moral panics because they lack folk devils or wild fluctuations of concern, while moral crusades are distinct campaigns initiated by particular interest groups or moral entrepreneurs. And, for Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panics are specifically defined by five clear criteria. Concern, hostility, consensus, and volatility are all important attributes but, they suggest, a dimension of disproportionality is especially crucial — by definition, they argue, moral panics are disproportionate reactions to perceived threats.

Critics such as criminologist Peter Waddington (1986), however, suggest the way moral panic theorists use notions of ‘disproportionality’ can be highly selective. From this position there is room to question the basis on which societal reactions to an event are judged to be ‘disproportionate’. Such pronouncements, critics argue, might simply reflect the personal values of a theorist. Additionally, while Cohen’s analysis neatly highlighted the media’s role in creating social phenomena and escalating their impact, it had less to say about what the events meant for those involved. Indeed, Cohen was well aware of this omission. In the introduction to his study of the 1960s mods and rockers, Cohen acknowleded that the youngsters themselves were ‘hardly going to appear as “real, live people” at all’. ‘They will be seen’, he explained, ‘through the eyes of societal reaction and in this reaction they tend to appear as disembodied objects, Rorshach blots onto which reactions are projected’ (Cohen, 2002: 15).

Subsequently, however, a wealth of research has focused on the experience of the ‘Rorshach blots’, many researchers exploring the meanings and attitudes held by groups of young people configured by the media as ‘folk devils’ (see Chapter 6). Sarah Thornton, however, is critical of moral panic theorists’ tendency to present ‘folk devils’ as simply the ‘innocent victims of negative stigmatisation’ (Thornton, 1995: 136). Instead, Thornton shows how the opprobrium of a moral panic ‘baptizes transgression’, with folk devils often ‘ relishing] the attention conferred by media condemnation’ (Thornton, 1995: 181). Some folk devils, she argues, actually embrace their lawless reputation, lapping up the infamy, so that ‘although negative reporting is disparaged, it is subject to anticipation, even aspiration’ (Thornton, 1995: 135).10

Other criticisms have also been levelled at the notion of moral panic. Writers such as Ian Taylor (1981), for example, have warned that simply dismissing fears of crime and violence as spurious ‘moral panics’ not only devalues

‘ordinary’ people’s experiences of these phenomena, but also creates a political vacuum open to exploitation by a reactionary ‘law and order’ lobby. And historian John Springhall (1998) voices reservations about attempts to ‘debunk’ sensational crime stories by stressing historical precedent along the lines of ‘there’s nothing really new about all this’. Such responses, he argues, risk sliding into an academic condescension that shows insufficient regard for genuinely held fears and concerns (Springhall, 1998: 8). While sensitive to these issues, Cohen himself argued that highlighting the media’s role in constructing a social problem does not necessarily question the problem’s existence; nor does it dismiss issues of causation, prevention, and control. Rather, he suggested, it reveals the way media discourse gives particular meanings to the problem and ‘draws attention to a meta debate about what sort of acknowledgement the problem receives and merits’ (Cohen, 2002: xxxiv).

Since the 1970s, however, shifts in the structure and operation of the media have led some theorists to suggest Cohen’s original theories require major revision. Both Angela McRobbie (1994) and Sarah Thornton (1994; 1995), for example, have suggested that the classic moral panics model operates with an excessively monolithic view of the media. Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, they argue, the modem media have become more diverse and fragmented, and are composed of a ‘multiplicity of voices, which compete and contest the meaning of the issues subject to “moral panic’” (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 560). In their analyses of the moral panics surrounding Britain’s dance music and ‘acid house’ scenes of the late 1980s and 1990s, for example, McRobbie and Thornton contended that account needed to be given to the ‘plurality of reactions, each with their different constituencies, effectivities and modes of discourse’ (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 564). The ‘classic’ notion of moral panic, they argued, failed to distinguish the array of different media responses to the ‘acid house’ scene. And they especially highlighted the way the mainstream media’s scare-mongering was challenged by alternative accounts offered in the ‘micro’ and ‘niche’ media that had mushroomed during the 1980s and 1990s -grass-roots fanzines, for example, that had ‘tracked the tabloids’ every move, reprinted whole front pages, analysed their copy and decried the misrepresentation of Acid House’ (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 568).

Written in the 1990s, McRobbie and Thornton’s account obviously predates the rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media. Developments which have meant, as Morgan and Poynting argue, ‘moral panics have become compressed both temporally and spatially, so that they are now global and virtually instantaneous’ (Morgan and Poynting, 2012: 5). At the same time, however, the proliferation of online news sources has extended the universe of ‘micro’ and ‘niche’ media identified by McRobbie and Thornton. Indeed, new legions of Internet bloggers, activists and ‘citizen journalists’ can now engage with a moral panic and contest the narrative of events presented by politicians and mainstream media.

By the same token, however, the spread of social media has also opened the gates for a flood of crackpot scare-stories and conspiracy theories, along with a

Media representations of youth 73 wealth of ‘fake news’ propagated by both governments and interest groups. All of which may work to instigate and intensify moral panics in a time characterised by some commentators as the era of ‘post-truth’.11 Moreover, according to some theorists, the use of news derived from social media can, for some audiences, simply act as a ‘bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. That is to say, rather than engaging with a plurality of different news sources, some users of social media may simply seek out information that reinforces their preconceived views.12 So, while some forms of online ‘niche’ media might work to dispute and dissipate episodes of exaggerated alarm, others can reinforce existing prejudices and fuel moral panics. Furthermore, as Charles Critcher has ruefully observed, despite the cacophony of different voices heard in the contemporary media, some remain considerably louder and more powerful than others, and ‘[wjhen the police, the tabloid press and the governing party conjoin in the concerted campaign, the weak power base of the alternative media is revealed’ (Critcher, 2000: 154).

Nonetheless, with the proliferation of different news sources, greater space is often given to agencies, experts and pressure groups to challenge moral panics and ‘folk devil’ stereotypes. And the concept of ‘moral panic’ has, itself, begun to inform journalistic discourse and public debate. For instance, amid the variety of views and perspectives that circulated around Melbourne’s ‘African gangs’ furore of 2018 (see above), journalist Calla Wahlquist recounted how a local community worker voiced concern that the episode was becoming ‘a racialised moral panic’ (Wahlquist, 2018). The remark neatly illustrates the way that, as Cohen himself observed in 2002, contemporary episodes of moral panic have seen the media become more self-reflective in their coverage, so that ‘the same public and media discourse that provides the raw evidence of moral panic [also] uses the concept as first-order description, reflexive comment or criticism’ (Cohen, 2002: vii).13

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